Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Review: "The Hunter"

"The Hunter" has the mood and feel of an understated spy drama, a la "The American," but shifted to an environmental story backdrop. Willem Dafoe plays a gun for hire sent to find, and kill, the last Tasmanian Tiger in existence.

It's the story of a man whose soul has been hollowed out by his profession, until he is given a quest that seems impossible. At first he is irritated by the distractions surrounding his job, but over time the job itself takes a back seat to the humanist themes.

Director Daniel Nettheim and screenwriter Alice Addison, who adapted the story from a novel by Julia Leigh, go for a minimalist approach with the characters and plot, keeping things spare and close to the chest. They rely on the audience to intuit the roiling emotions going on behind Dafoe's cool mask of detachment, rather than employing overt displays or manipulative techniques.

The result is a film that is more cerebral than visceral, with the gorgeous, untouched Tasmanian landscapes providing the lush ornamentation that the narrative does not.

Martin David -- we are certain this is not his real name --  is hired by a company called Redfish, which believes that the Tasmanian tiger holds the secret to a nerve toxin that will bring them billions if weaponized. Not only do they want it, but they want to make sure no one else has it.

(The tiger is not really a tiger, but a thylacine, a marsupial more closely related to a kangaroo than a feline predator.)

When he arrives on the Australian island, Martin finds himself the subject of much more scrutiny that he would like. He's put up in lodgings in the remote home of a family in a state of disarray. Two children, Sass and Bike (Morgana Davies, Finn Woodlock), seem to be running the show while their mother (Frances O'Connor) stays entirely in bed.

Sass drops f-bombs like a sailor, while Bike doesn't speak at all. The house is a total mess -- the bathtub is coated in grime, the electrical generator quit long ago -- and Sass reassures Martin their father will return soon to fix it all. But Jack Mindy (Sam Neill), a helpful local, reports that the man of the house, a tree-hugging type, when missing last year.

Most of the local industry is tied to logging, but the local "greenies" have temporarily put a stop to it with an environmental impact study, raising tensions to a keen edge. The loggers take Martin for one of their foes, and his SUV is vandalized.

At first Martin spends most of his time out in the bush, setting traps and carefully marking his map in an attempt to find his elusive prey. Nettheim follows the particulars of the craft with an almost fetishistic attention to detail.

But Martin finds himself spending more and more time at the house, interacting with the kids and the mother, once she emerges from her fog of narcotic isolation. Dafoe gives us glimmers of his character's inner changes, as he suddenly beholds a life within his grasp beyond stalking and slaying.

The story rushes a little too fast toward the end, as Martin makes some bold choices based on his feelings for the family he has semi-adopted. But the movie hasn't really earned this sudden transition, showing us the beginnings of Martin's step away from his old life, but not the middle.

Still, "The Hunter" is an exercise in lean storytelling, chilling and sharp.

3 stars out of four

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